Herculaneum – an archaeological jewel

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Glass mosaic of Neptune and Amphitritis which gives the house its name

Just like its neighbour Pompeii, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Herculaneum was an ancient Roman town destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted on 24th August 79 AD. The ruins of Herculaneum are well worth visiting and, whereas the size of Pompeii can be overwhelming, this site can be visited in a couple of hours. Its smaller scale also makes a visit more manageable and the clear layout means that it is easier to understand the site. Another benefit is that there are far fewer visitors, and parking is much easier. The new town of Ercolano can also be reached by train.

Aerial view of Herculaneum, much smaller than Pompeii but just as interesting

History of Herculaneum

Herculaneum was probably founded by Samnite tribes from the Italian mainland at the end of the 6th century BC and then became a Greek trading post. The Greeks named it Heraklion after their hero Hercules. In the 4th century BC, the town again came under the domination of the Samnites and fought against Rome in the Social War (91-88 BC), when it was defeated and became a Roman municipium. It soon became a favourite holiday resort because of its beautiful setting and its brilliant cultural life, largely influenced by nearby Naples (Gr: Neapolis). Herculaneum was a wealthier town than Pompeii and this can be seen in the stunning murals, coloured wall decorations and the many statues excavated here.

The town was badly damaged by an earthquake in 62 AD and then completely destroyed when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. The prevailing winds at the time of the eruption blew toward the southeast, causing the volcanic material to fall primarily on Pompeii and the surrounding area. Herculaneum was only mildly affected by the first phase of the eruption. While roofs in Pompeii collapsed under the weight of falling debris, and the city was virtually destroyed, only a few centimetres of ash fell on Herculaneum. This caused little damage but prompted most inhabitants to flee. However, during the following night the column of ash which had risen into the stratosphere collapsed, falling to earth and burying the (by now mostly evacuated) town under about 20 metres of ash. This caused little structural damage and had the effect of preserving buildings, furniture and even food almost intact.

Map showing cities affected by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The black cloud
indicates the general distribution of ash and cinder. Wikipedia.

Excavations

The site of Herculaneum was discovered by chance in 1709 by a peasant digging a well. Early excavations by the head of the Austrian army in Naples unearthed statues, marble tablets and pillars, some of which were sent to Vienna and Dresden. Work began again in 1738 but was suspended in 1765 after the discovery of Pompeii, which was much easier to excavate because of the thinner layer of debris covering the site (4 m as opposed to Herculaneum’s 20 m). Excavations at Herculaneum continued sporadically up to the present day but over 75% of the site remains buried under the Italian towns of Ercolano and Portici. There is, quite naturally, opposition from local residents to any further excavations under their homes.

The excavated site of Herculaneum from the East, with the modern town of Ercolano
(formerly Resina) above it
The ancient and modern – the modern town of Ercolano above Herculaneum

Visiting the site

The grid pattern of the layout of the present site makes it easy to explore and understand. An illustrated guidebook covering Pompeii and Herculaneum explains the history and describes some of the main buildings and other features.

Map of the area so far excavated, clearly showing the grid layout

It is impossible to describe the entire site in detail but some of the more important buildings are described below.

House of Telephus Relief

This is the largest house on the site and is on several levels, following the lie of the ground. The atrium has a colonnade on three sides with columns painted in red and there is also a garden with a fountain. The neo-Attic relief tells the story of Telephus, son of Heracles who was wounded in the thigh by the spear of Achilles (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telephus)

Atrium in the House of Telephus with pool, red-painted columns and a relief on the wall
The relief showing the story of Telephus

College of Augustans

This was a public building although its use – and even its real name – is uncertain. It consists of a very large hall with a marble floor and four columns supporting a flat roof. Two of the walls have large paintings of Hercules, after whom the town is named. Built into one side of this room was the keeper’s room, and in fact his skeleton was found lying on the bed.

Painting of Hercules with Neptune and Amphitrite in the so-called College of Augustans

The corn shop

A number of shops have been excavated in Herculaneum and the largest has a sales counter, walled on three sides and holding eight amphoras. These would originally have been used for cereals, legumes such as beans, and other foodstuffs. A vaulted niche in the corner (left in the photo) was a fireplace. Originally there were two other rooms behind the shop, one probably for use by clients, and other rooms on the floor above.

The interior of a shop showing the sales counter and amphoras which held foodstuffs

House of Neptune and Amphitritis

This house is built around an atrium. One wall houses a decorated grotto and another has a stunning glass mosaic.

Grotto in the house of Neptune and Amphitritis
Glass mosaic of Neptune and Amphitritis which gives the house its name

Obviously the ruins of Pompeii are the main attraction in this area and demand at least one whole day if not more. But anyone spending a few days in or near Naples should certainly find time to visit this archaeological jewel.

Text and photos Alun Harvey

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